Thursday, February 2, 2006

Al Qaeda terrorism remains the most serious threat to U.S. national security, and the insurgency in Iraq shows no sign of abating, the nation’s top intelligence official told the Senate yesterday.

Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte also said that Iran’s nuclear development program is “an immediate concern,” although Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear device.

Mr. Negroponte and other senior U.S. intelligence officials appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the annual threat briefing on dangers to U.S. security.

“Attacking the United States homeland, United States interests overseas and United States allies — in that order — are al Qaeda’s top operational priorities,” he said.

“The group will attempt high-impact attacks for as long as its central command structure is functioning and affiliated groups are capable of furthering its interests because even modest operational capabilities can yield a deadly and damaging attack.”

Democrats at the hearing questioned the intelligence officials about the legality of the once-secret National Security Agency electronic eavesdropping program.

“We believe that all these activities are being undertaken in full compliance with our Constitution and with the laws of our country,” Mr. Negroponte said, noting that the program to monitor suspected al Qaeda overseas phone calls to the United States has helped in dealing with the terrorist threat.

The top-secret NSA program was exposed by the New York Times. The revelation has hurt U.S. intelligence, said Porter Goss, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission,” Mr. Goss told the committee. “There has been an erosion of the culture of secrecy.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and committee chairman, said, “Our enemies are continually probing our defenses and adjusting their tactics in an attempt to launch a successful mass casualty attack.”

As in past threat assessments, Mr. Negroponte said al Qaeda is pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for its attacks, but its most likely method will be the use of conventional explosives.

Nearly 40 terrorist organizations or similar groups have used, acquired or shown interest in weapons of mass destruction, he said.

The merger of al Qaeda with the Iraq-based terror group headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi has extended the reach of the group and broadened its ideological appeal.

For the first time, U.S. intelligence has learned al Qaeda’s vision from a letter from al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group believes its terrorist activities in Iraq are a “steppingstone” to the creation of a global Islamist “caliphate,” or ruling regime.

Mr. Negroponte said a “homegrown” U.S. version of al Qaeda affiliated terrorists was uncovered last year in Lodi, Calif.

Regarding Iraq, Mr. Negroponte said an Islamist victory over the new government “could secure an operational base in Iraq and inspire sympathizers elsewhere to move beyond rhetoric to attempt attacks against neighboring Middle Eastern nations, against Europe, and even the United States.”

Zarqawi’s terrorist activities in Iraq could lead to a similar outcome. “His capture would deprive the movement of a notorious leader, whereas his continued acts of terror could enable him to expand his following beyond his organization in Iraq, much as bin Laden expanded al Qaeda in the 1990s,” Mr. Negroponte said.

Mr. Negroponte said there are encouraging signs that Iraq is developing into a democratic system, noting that insurgents hold no territory and failed to disrupt two national elections.

However, insurgents are being fueled by Sunni Arab disaffection that “is likely to remain high in 2006,” he said.

“Even if a broad, inclusive national government emerges, there almost certainly will be a lag time before we see a dampening effect on the insurgency,” Mr. Negroponte said.

The most extreme insurgents, like those under Zarqawi, “will remain unreconciled and continue to attack Iraqis and coalition forces,” he said.

On arms proliferation, Mr. Negroponte said dangerous weapons and missiles in Iran and North Korea are the second major threat to U.S. security. “We are most concerned about the threat and destabilizing effect of nuclear proliferation,” he said.

Iran’s nuclear program was described by Mr. Negroponte as a developing problem, even though Tehran probably does not yet have a weapon and has not produced the fuel for nuclear bombs. “Nevertheless, the danger that it will acquire a nuclear weapon and the ability to integrate it with ballistic missiles Iran already possesses is a reason for immediate concern,” he said.

On North Korea, Mr. Negroponte said Pyongyang views its nuclear arsenal as a way to counter U.S. and allied forces and prevent the ouster of the Kim Jong-il communist regime.

In Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is continuing to “constrict democracy” and increase ties with the government of Cuba, as well as the regimes in Iran and North Korea, he said.

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